1980 And All That

In an effort to cheer up Republicans who may have read George Will’s column suggesting they forget about the presidency and focus on winning Congress, the Wall Street Journal‘s William McGurn hauled out conservatives’ favorite comfort blanket: Barack Obama is another Jimmy Carter, 2012 is another 1980, and hard as it is to imagine for his acolytes today, Ronald Reagan was once thought to be a sure general election loser, too (or at least by the New York Times, whose 1980 editorial suggesting that Republicans were blowing a big winning opportunity is abundantly quoted to establish the premise).

McGurn then laboriously goes through parallels between 1980 and 2012: there was an incumbent Democratic president in place; there were turbulent, divisive GOP primaries; there was a party split that produced an independent candidacy; there were early polls showing Reagan losing to Carter by double-digits; there were MSM journalists saying the nominee an the party had gone too far to the right; there were candidate gaffes. Anticipating the most obvious objection to the hypothesis, McGurn has this deft maneuver:

[T]he parallels to 1980 take you only so far, and Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. Still, at this same point in his campaign for the GOP nomination, neither was Reagan. The President Reagan we rightly admire for bringing down the Berlin Wall, reviving the U.S. economy, and attracting into the GOP millions of disaffected Democrats was still to come.

And he got there by transcending the conventional wisdom rather than allowing himself or his message to be limited by it.

Message to Mitt: hang tough and do not “move to the center.”

This is all well and good, I suppose, and you certainly can’t fault Mitt Romney for failing to make every effort to identify himself with St. Ronnie and the incumbent with Jimmy (see today’s Romney op-ed on Iran).

But in racing through the parallels between 1980 and 2012, McGurney fails to note the many rather important differences.

Yes, the economy sucks right now, with unemployment presently over 8%. But in 1980, America’s unemployment rate was nearly as high (7%), and we also had, as old-timers remember with a shudder, a 14% inflation rate and a prime borrowing rate of 15%. The chronic condition of the economy, known as “staglation,” was psychologically debilitating and even more frustrating to policymakers than today’s recession. Americans were definitely looking for something, anything, new, and Reagan offered that through an agenda of supply-side tax cuts and deregulation, approaches which had not, at that point, demonstrated their shortcomings and downsides.

Is Obama’s political situation really just like Carter’s? Well, there is this little matter of Carter facing a brutal, extended, divisive primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, which he barely survived. By the time of the Democratic Convention, when Carter’s approval rating was in the low thirties, there was a serious effort by major party leaders to unbind delegates and dump the president. This sort of intraparty heartburn does not look to be in the cards for Obama.

McGurney mentions John Anderson’s independent candidacy as a big problem for Reagan (presumably as a parallel to talk about a Ron Paul third-party run), and it was at one point. But by the general election stretch run, with Anderson bleeding support daily, the independent was heavily drawing such support as he retained from liberals–probably many of them the same people who voted against Carter in the primaries–and was running on a message well to Carter’s left (I happened to hear Anderson speak in California in October, when a big part of his pitch was his support for gay rights, a really unusual position in those days).

And then there was another Carter problem that has been long forgotten: when he was elected in 1976, a big part of his coalition was white southerners–and southern-inflected voters elsewhere, particularly in the midwest–voting for him as a matter of regional pride (in many case reinforced by religious identification, given his outspoken evangelical affiliation). As is generally the case after a “historic” breakthrough win, Carter’s regional and religious pull slackened greatly in 1980; he certainly did not benefit from endorsements by George Wallace and Jerry Falwell, as he did four years earlier. You could try to construct a parallel with Barack Obama’s historic levels of African-American support in 2008, but African-Americans are not exactly swing voters (as white southerners most definitely were in 1980), and even if there is a small dropoff in African-American turnout, it will affect the results on the margins, and most emphatically in states Republicans expect to win anyway.

I could go on with the many differences between 1980 and 2012, between Carter and Obama, and between Reagan and Romney, and between the America of that day and this (there was not, you might recall, much of a Hispanic vote in 1980), but you get the idea. Yes, if out of the blue inflation and interest rates explode, and Democrats become radically disaffected with Obama, and Americans Elect gets a candidate attractive to liberals on the ballot, and the African-American vote turns heavily against the president, and Mitt Romney becomes a symbol of fresh thinking–then you’ll have a good parallel case for another 1980 result this November.

Republicans are welcome to continue to comfort themselves with this sort of reasoning, but as Will said, they really do need a Plan B.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.